New Questions and Answers

Q. How do you handle the spacing with a name that is only initials? Do you put a space between the initials or not? For example: “My friend B.J. is an awesome skater.” Or “My friend B. J. is an awesome skater.”

A. Chicago style for initials that are used as a name is to take out the periods and close up the letters: BJ. Please see CMOS 8.4.

Q. Many of our news blurbs contain conference and presentation titles. Folks here, including the head of the organization, insist on constructing sentences with titles thus: “He gave a presentation on ‘Planetary Boundaries and Peacebuilding’ in a parallel session of the conference.” I have explained that this must be recast, either omitting the preposition and adding commas (gave a presentation, “Planetary Boundaries”) or retaining the preposition and translating the title into lowercase (gave a presentation on planetary boundaries and peacebuilding). But everyone here ignores my suggestion. My understanding is that it is a non-negotiable grammatical error, but the error is so widespread, at least in science circles, that I’m beginning to wonder now if it is permissible in other style guides. Is there anything you can tell me to bolster my case?

A. There are some nonnegotiable grammar errors, but this is probably not one of them. The rule (CMOS 8.172) was made to prevent misunderstanding. For instance, in your original sentence, it’s not clear whether the presenter was speaking about a published article titled “Planetary Boundaries and Peacebuilding” or whether that was the title of his own talk. Much of the time, readers will know what you mean whichever way you style it. When there’s a risk of ambiguity, however, it’s worth enforcing the rule.

Q. If I am making a direct quotation and using the author-date references, the reference is supposed to go within the sentence before the period. But what if the quotation is at the end of the sentence? Do I use two periods? E.g.: Carrington, a Thatcherite conservative, remarked after the Lancaster House agreement in 1979 that “if any man left Lancaster House transformed in the eyes of Western statesmen, it was Mugabe.” (Chan 2003, 14).

A. The rule stays the same—keep the citation within the sentence, before the period: Carrington, a Thatcherite conservative, remarked after the Lancaster House agreement in 1979 that “if any man left Lancaster House transformed in the eyes of Western statesmen, it was Mugabe” (Chan 2003, 14). The presence of a question mark or exclamation mark at the end of the quotation doesn’t change the need for a period after the citation: Did Carrington say that “it was Mugabe”? (Chan 2003, 14).

Q. If sidebars or text boxes in a book have text references, what labels are used? They aren’t exactly figures or tables. Something like “(see text box 1.1)” doesn’t seem like a good solution, so could short titles be used instead, or is there a more elegant label I haven’t thought of?

A. “Box 1” (or “box 1.1” if you start over in each chapter) is the usual way to label text boxes. A title without a number wouldn’t give any clue to the location or sequence of the box, so in a long document or a document with many boxes, titles are not as helpful as numbering.

Q. In a Q&A some time ago, you said, “In other words, use the unless the abbreviation is used as an adjective or unless the abbreviation spelled out wouldn’t take a definite article.” My question is: since there is only one definite article in English (the), is a in the expression “a definite article” correct?

A. It’s conventional to refer to “the definite article,” but that doesn’t mean that “a definite article” is nonsense. If there were only one definite article in the whole world available for use, after which no one could use another one, then maybe you would have a point. But we can use the as many times in a sentence as we like—there is an unlimited supply. “The cat climbed the tree in the forest” has three. We can put a [sic] definite article in front of all kinds of words: nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and so on.

Q. I’m editing notes for a book with chapters by a variety of authors. A few of the authors want to cite specific page numbers and exclude some pages between the first and last page they’re referencing. I’ve seen it done two different ways, and I’m not sure which is correct. Example 1:

John Smith, “Canada and the Commonwealth,” Foreign Policy Journal 16, no. 2 (2009): 61–63, 67–68.

Example 2:

John Smith, “Canada and the Commonwealth,” Foreign Policy Journal 16, no. 2 (2009): 61–63 and 67–68.

Are either of these correct, or should I make it 61–68? 

A. Both styles are fine (with a comma and with and), but compressing the ranges into a single range is not advised. Writers cite the exact pages where they found the information that supports their argument so readers know where to find the evidence without wasting time on pages that are irrelevant. Compressing the ranges to 61–68 implies wrongly that there is useful information on pages 64–66. Your writers would be justifiably annoyed if you did that.

Q. How do I punctuate the end of a specimen sentence, quoted from a style guide, contained within a sentence in which it is followed by an independent clause? For example:

Chicago illustrates the use of the period (6.12) with the sentence “Wait here.” but that doesn’t answer all my questions.

I feel I need to keep the period before the close quote to retain the integrity and purpose of the quoted sentence, but CMOS 6.28 calls for a comma between independent clauses, and my ear calls for one as well. The period also violates the common practice of replacing a period by a comma to end a quote that doesn’t end a sentence. However, I can’t imagine where you would put a comma. How would you handle this?

A. You are right that it’s awkward to have a period in the middle of a sentence. You simply mustn’t do it! Rewrite the sentence so as to avoid the issue:

Chicago illustrates the use of the period (6.12) with the sentence “Wait here.” But that doesn’t answer all my questions.

Another option is to set off the example typographically so it doesn’t become part of the syntax of your sentence:

Chicago illustrates the use of the period (6.12) with the example {Wait here.}, but that doesn’t answer all my questions.

Q. I’m editing an article in which the author interviews a transgender person who prefers the pronouns they/them. For example, the author writes, “During Harry’s senior year, they were one of five contestants.” Do I change the sentence to “he was” or leave it as the author wrote it to respect the politics of sexual transitioning? The article is published in a newsmagazine (not a scientific journal) for a professional association of psychological therapists.

A. Since the author makes a point of explaining the use of they/them, it would confuse things to disallow the usage. It seems to be one of the points of the article; to edit it out would be overstepping. If there’s some reason you think the usage—in spite of the explanation—doesn’t work, make a note to the author or assigning editor explaining the problem so it can be addressed.

Q. In referring to a publication, I know the title should be in italics. But if a longer title such as Looking Back: A Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of Phi Eta Sigma National Honor Society is shortened to Looking Back, should quotation marks be added to the italics?

A. No. If the full title is italic, the shortened version should also be italic. Please see CMOS 14.25 for examples of shortened titles.

Q. I’m working on a write-up about women’s soccer, and I’m unclear about how to describe the athletes. Woman athlete? Female athlete?

A. How about athlete? The Chicago Manual of Style covers ways to avoid gender bias in writing at sections 5.221–230.

October Q&A

Q. We are writing an invitation for a New Year’s Eve party which will take place on December 31, 2015. Would it be referred to as New Year’s Eve 2016 or New Year’s Eve 2015? I’ve seen it both ways but can’t seem to find an authoritative answer. Thanks!

A. Since New Year’s Eve is December 31, there should be no doubt which year it is in. However, your own confusion suggests that it is not a good idea to write “New Year’s Eve [year].” If you’re afraid your guests will show up a year late, clarify by adding month, day, and year to your invitation.

Q. In a book printed with two columns per page, how should footnotes be handled? In two columns? Running across the entire page? If the former, should the notes in each column start at the same height on the page, or is it okay for them to be at different heights?

A. Putting the notes in two columns is ideal, but you must make sure that each note falls at the foot of the column it is called out in. Because the number and length of the notes for each column might vary dramatically, it’s not practical to always begin the notes at the same height. If this is an important project, consider hiring a graphic designer who specializes in scholarly books to make these decisions based on page size, column width, words per page, length of the notes, type sizes, etc. Otherwise, just use your best aesthetic sense and aim for readability and balance.

Q. “[Name of organization] wishes a Happy 75th Birthday to [name of person].” Is this correct? What are the rules of capitalization for “Happy Birthday”?

A. The rules are that common adjectives and nouns should be lowercased and names of holidays are uppercased. Although birthday is not the name of a holiday, people often cap “Happy Birthday” in cards and notes to make it look festive. For this reason, worrying about correctness in such contexts can be counterproductive.

Q. Dear Chicago, Many transgender authors have a “dead name”—the name the author had before undergoing the process of transitioning genders. This dead name may come with unhappy emotional associations and moreover is in any case no longer the real or current name of the author concerned. However, they may have previously published using that dead name. Citing the author with that dead name may therefore be an ethically compromised act, be hurtful, or simply be factually incorrect. However, it may also be the only name connected with the work being cited. What then, would you advise as the best practice when citing transgender authors?

A. Cite the sources using the names they were published under. That is the factually correct way to cite anything. To change a name from the published version is not sound scholarship. You don’t have to out any authors or comment on their transitions. If it’s important to link a dead name with a current name explicitly and you’re reluctant to do that, contact the author for permission and instructions on cross-referencing or glossing the names. If the author can’t be contacted, forge ahead with a clear conscience. Most writers are happy to be cited at all.

Q. In an online user documentation set, is “Appendix” or “Appendixes” the correct top-level heading? Under this heading, there will be multiple unrelated topics. Is each one an appendix? Or should I refer to the group of topics as the appendix? Since this is online, I do not intend to use “Appendix A, Appendix B,” and so on. I will use descriptive headings such as “Working with Nontemplate Databases’ Deprecated Features.”

A. You are the best one to decide. If you use “Appendixes,” give each topic its own page and list the links using the descriptive heads as page titles. If you use “Appendix,” put all your topics on a single page, with the descriptive heads serving as subheadings. If the topics are truly unrelated, or if there is an advantage to having a unique URL for each one, then the former option is probably best.

Q. We have a quotation from a book source, just two sentences, and the author has taken the first part of the quote from page 5 and the second part of the quote from page 4, and she includes a 4-dot ellipse in the middle to indicate missing text. How do we source that? Do we write “pages 4–5” in the note? Or perhaps “5, 4” to indicate that it’s out of order? I’m hoping you won’t tell me to do two different notes or rewrite . . . and that you won’t correct the run-on sentence above. (:

A. This type of quoting misrepresents the original text by changing the order of the sentences. It is a misquotation. You must either make two different quotes or rewrite! You can use the same note to source the two quotations, however, listing the page numbers in the order they are quoted from: 5, 4. (We’ll give you a pass on the run-on sentence.)

Q. Your rule that titles such as captain must be in lowercase is giving me trouble in a work about drilling oil wells. I have dutifully rendered a title such as Well Superintendent as lowercase, only to have multiple reviewers complain that they tripped over it in phrases such as “the well superintendent then called the office,” gaining a first impression that I was distinguishing the well superintendent from the ill superintendent. Also, the individual with that title is generally known as the “WS,” and it seems inconsistent to have the full title in lowercase and the abbreviation capitalized.

A. We can’t say it often enough: when a style doesn’t work for you, don’t use it! As for alleged inconsistency when full titles are lowercased and abbreviations are capitalized, that is the norm.

Q. Do you recommend using a comma to separate items in a “from X to Y to Z” format? In more complex sentences, they may aid in comprehension, e.g., “He always bought the latest technology, from a cell phone that could tell his coffeemaker to start percolating at 7am[,] to a television that could remember all his preferences[,] to a tablet computer that synced all his bookmarks with his phone and laptop.” I’m working with an author who prefers to use commas in such cases.

A. If the items are short, you probably don’t need commas—unless leaving them out would result in hilarity: “He always bought the latest technology from a computer that synced his bookmarks to a coffeemaker that delivered mochas to a television that remembered his preferences.”

Remember that overuse of the device can annoy readers. Know too that persnickety readers dislike “false ranges,” although they are an accepted figure of speech. A “true range” is something like “from A to Z”; a false range is “from cells phones to coffeemakers,” where there are no logical endpoints to form a range. In your sentence, the range could easily be edited into a simple list.

Q. Is it necessary to hyphenate “car-rental agency,” or is “car rental agency” clear enough? Also, the same question as it applies to “16th-century ornamental bridge.” Sometimes, I think writing has gone hyphen-crazy.

A. As we say at 7.85, “In general, Chicago prefers a spare hyphenation style: if no suitable example or analogy can be found either in this section or in the dictionary, hyphenate only if doing so will aid readability.” You will find at CMOS 7.85 that adjectives formed with century are hyphenated; nouns are left open; for phrases like “car rental agency,” the writer can judge.

Q. How should text message conversations be styled within a story to distinguish them from normal dialogue? I already use italics for internal thoughts, and it might be confusing to use the same technique for text messages. I also use quotes with italics when a character is thinking about another person’s dialogue. Would reading a text message be akin to that? Or can I just make up something completely different (e.g., < how r u > )?

A. Unless a designer wants to create a special typography for text messages (as is sometimes done in books for children and young adults), just use quotation marks. It’s never been considered necessary to have a separate style for phone conversations, e-mails, or other types of communication, and texts are nothing new in this regard. The context should make it clear: “how r u,” he texted; “ha ha Daddy I can’t believe you use ‘r u,’” she replied.